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Taylor Haelterman headshot

Is Joy Newsworthy?

A person reading a newspaper.

(Image: Ono Kosuki/Pexels)

This story on including joy as a news value is part of The Solutions Effect, a monthly newsletter covering the best of solutions journalism in the sustainability and social impact space. If you aren't already getting this newsletter, you can sign up here

When you think about why the most recent article you read was “newsworthy,” what’s the first word that comes to mind? Is it timeliness, conflict, unusualness, joy? That last one may seem out of place, but maybe it shouldn’t. 

Perry Parks, a researcher and assistant professor of journalism at Michigan State University, my alma mater, argues that joy is a news value

News values are a set of criteria journalists use to determine whether to cover a story. The list varies but has traditionally included timeliness, proximity, prominence, impact, conflict, unusualness and human interest. These values tend to lead reporters toward covering more negative news, and negativity garners attention that feeds the production of more, similar news. It’s a concept known as negativity bias. 

“If you're always covering the aberrant thing because it's different than what's usual, then people get this really aberrant view of how society works,” Parks said. “It helps explain why lots and lots of people think crime is going up right now when crime is going down in most places, across most categories. Journalists cover rising crime better than they cover falling crime. They cover rising inflation better than they cover falling inflation. That's that negativity bias.”

At the same time, the number of people who avoid the news is hovering near an all-time high and people are skipping over negative stories to find something more uplifting, according to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report

Much of this disconnect stems from how the news was conceived: presenting isolated factual information that is devoid of emotion so audiences can draw their own conclusions. The idea that journalists need to be detached excludes the process of feeling from journalism, which also detaches everyone else from the main aspects of the news, Parks said. 

“That’s not the way people actually operate,” Parks said. “Everything that we engage with, we engage with our thinking mind, and with our feeling brain, and our feeling bodies.” 

Instead, news needs to include an affective component alongside facts, he said. In psychology, “affect” describes the innate impulses and reactions in our bodies that influence our emotions and the mood of the atmosphere around us. Like the looming feeling you might experience in a hospital waiting room, for example.  

That’s where joy-oriented news values come in. 

Parks was inspired by “The Book of Joy” by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who are Nobel Peace Prize winners. The book breaks joy down into multiple elements: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. Elements like these can be added to the list of traditional news values to expand what journalists look for in a story and what the public expects from journalism, Parks said. 

“If, over time, we as a society agree that journalism includes examples of forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, generosity, humility, humor, perspective — in addition to conflict, unusualness, proximity and that sort of thing — then maybe it would be easier to encounter news more often,” he said. “And we might have a better view of the world where we recognize a lot more about what's good in people.” 

Embracing joy and other positive values doesn’t mean only telling happy stories. Viewing them as an addition to the existing criteria still encourages rigorous reporting of serious subjects and challenges. 

“It means covering the very hardest things humans have to deal with, but in a way that illustrates how people can be human, compassionate and generous with one another, that shows people who are acting in good faith to try to make the world better,” Parks said.

This concept parallels solutions journalism in some ways, like telling the stories of people who are trying to solve problems, but solutions journalism still maintains more of the old way of doing things, he said. 

“I think of joy in this concept as more of a humanistic approach to journalism that's sort of leading with the heart, as opposed to solutions journalism probably still leading with the head,” he said. “But I think they can fit together like that really well.”  

Some people mistakenly dismiss joy-oriented news values as frivolous. Others critique it as manipulating people's emotions instead of allowing them to draw their own conclusions, which is a valid concern and something to look out for, Parks said. But it’s still always the case that journalism evokes emotions, and awarding-winning stories are often praised for doing so. 

“The choice is really whether journalists should be conscious of the emotions they're evoking, or just not be and pretend that they're not [doing it],” he said. “I think one of the biggest things we need to do is reconceive more broadly what journalism does to account for the fact that emotion is tied up with it. So, just as we say we're going to be deliberate about the facts, we convey that we can also be deliberate about what kinds of emotions we're drawing on.” 

Reworking the way we’ve evaluated newsworthiness for decades isn’t a small task, but Parks’ research shows journalists have the power to make the change. The first step is talking about it. 

“The way to change news values is not going to be like somebody flicks a light switch and it changes, but that we begin to saturate the discourse with these ideas and we make them normal,” Parks said. “We try to turn them into common sense.” 

“Eventually it just becomes not this weird thing that somebody proposed, but this natural thing that we all take into account.” 

Taylor Haelterman headshot

Taylor’s work spans print, podcasts, photography and radio. She brings her passion for covering social and environmental issues through the lens of solutions journalism to her work as editorial assistant. 

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